Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with President Bush Monday and reiterated that he is open to negotiations with the Palestinian government if it recognizes Israel and renounces violence. Experts discuss the conflict and its future.
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While their comments on Iran drew the most attention, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also discussed another major piece of unfinished Mideast business: the increasingly violent deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians.
Olmert came into office promising action, unilaterally or through negotiations, with the Palestinians. But after an Israeli soldier was kidnapped in Gaza and Israel fought Hezbollah in Lebanon, Olmert put any West Bank withdrawal on hold.
The Israeli government also has refused to work with the Palestinian Hamas-led government, but today Olmert said Israel might be ready to start talks with a new Palestinian government.
EHUD OLMERT, Prime Minister of Israel: Indeed, we hope that the new government will be established soon, on the basis of the quartets and the road map, and that will allow an immediate contact between him and me that I'm sure will lead into a serious negotiating process.
Meanwhile, over the past month, violence in Gaza has escalated, despite Israel's unilateral withdrawal a year ago. The Israeli army has been battling Palestinian militants, launching rockets into Israel from Gaza. Nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of November.
The bloodiest day of fighting came last Wednesday, when Israeli artillery fire killed at least 18 members of one Palestinian family in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. The deaths sparked outrage and brought tens of thousands of mourning Palestinians to the streets for the funeral. The Israelis apologized, saying the shelling was an error.
Today, rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, moved toward an agreement on a new technocratic government that would be headed by Mohammad Shabir as prime minister. Shabir's candidacy has to be endorsed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah.
For more on the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, we're joined by Martin Indyk, assistant secretary of state for Near-Eastern affairs and twice U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration. He's now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
And Robert Malley, special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs and a director for Near-eastern affairs on the National Security Council staff, he's now Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group.
And it's been a while since we've sort of caught up with what's going on in that relationship. What is the state of play in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis today, Robert Malley?
ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group:
Well, what you have is basically no engagement between Israelis and Palestinians at any significant level since the Hamas government was elected. And at the same time, you have renewed and intensified violence.
You just mentioned what happened in Beit Hanoun last week, so it's a stalemate with no prospects at this point of things changing, unless you see a change in the Palestinian government and reciprocal change in the attitude of the international community, which would agree to deal with that government.
We're still a ways away from that, but that's the way forward, is to have a government that could govern, that could impose a cease-fire, and on the Israeli side allowing that government to govern and dealing with it as it has dealt with other Palestinian governments in the past.